Mike Burgess’ “annual threat assessment”: Testing our reserves of patience

Jan 26, 2024
blue digital cyber skull and cpu 3d illustration Image: iStock/monsitj

For the last few Februaries the Director-General of the ASIO, Mr Mike Burgess, has delivered an “annual threat assessment” by way of a speech to as many worthies as he can gather before him. He’s no doubt got the 2024 edition well in the works and invitations to the event in the post. Potential invitees should brace themselves by building up their reserves of patience because if he’s true to form Burgess will test them to their limit.

In 2023, Burgess said that threat assessment speech was “driven by the triple T’s of Threat, Trust and Team. I want to improve awareness of threats, enhance trust through transparency and build our team by recruiting the best and the brightest.”

The speech did little to improve awareness of threats or “enhance trust through transparency” although the “best and the brightest” in recruitment land might be attracted by a sense they would have plenty of scope to help Burgess and the ASIO improve the intelligence caper, including in the drafting of speeches.

Burgess’s 2023 oration is textually and logically shambolic. It abounds in largely unevidenced assertions, patronises those who dare to question what the ASIO is up to, makes mountains from molehills and is in parts misleading. It is rich in self-congratulation and it needs all the exegetic help it can get.

Burgess claims “Australia is facing an unprecedented challenge from espionage and foreign interference…”. That’s ambiguous, ambiguity being a cardinal failing in those providing intelligence. If Burgess means the “challenge” is merely different from previous times, that’s likely although so proverbial as to be not worth saying. Happily, six or seven pages in Burgess clarifies his meaning saying that ”Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign interference more than at any time in Australia’s history.”. Yet he offers only scraps of evidence in support of that claim, gives no comparisons with earlier eras and gets nowhere near his promise to “detail the scale and scope of the threat”. Thus he:

  • Refers to the murder of three people at Wieambilla in Queensland in December 2022 by people with extreme religious views, an isolated event whose perpetrators seem not to be related by any wider group.
  • Justifies a claim that ASIO is “busier than at any time in our 74 year history” by saying that in 2022 ASIO staff travelled more than 3 million kilometres, a travelogue that indicates nothing about busy-ness but suggests scope for ample savings in ASIO’s travel budget.
  • Says ASIO “detected and disrupted” a “hive of spies” who wanted to “steal sensitive information” but who were “removed…from this country, privately and professionally.” But sorry, we can’t be told details of how many were in the “hive”, what they were trying to pinch, where they were from, where they were sent to and so on and on.
  • Says to the surprise of no one that “multiple countries are aggressively seeking our secrets” – but “multiple” is, if now popular, an awfully imprecise word. How many countries exactly? Four, eight, 32? If intelligence isn’t precise, it’s worthless.
  • Claims that “a small number of Australian judicial figures have been subjected to suspicious approaches” but again, no particulars.
  • Says that “journalists” are being “targeted by spies in person” – this is so proverbial as to not be worth saying without a dimensional qualifier.
  • Says “a foreign intelligence service” used a “lackey to do its dirty work” – yes, you’ve guessed, this slip into Soviet era demagogic oratory is unsupported by any facts to give it meaning.

In all these, and in most other instances, some of which seem trivial, there is none of the promised scaling or scoping and the claims are left without dimension, an essential component in useful intelligence.

Burgess lets the snippets flow until he gets to the bottom of the barrel claiming that “defence employees [were] approached in a Canberra bar by two women who wanted to know everything about Pine Gap.” Here fear, anxiety and outrage bubble over – the horror, the horror. Thank goodness the defence employees reported the approach and didn’t spill their guts on the Gap. A close shave to be sure.

If he wants to be convincing, Burgess should (a) provide details and evidence in support of his claims and (b) turn down his hectoring/lecturing tone. And he needs to be consistent. “Words matter” he says. Of course they do, so it would be better if he avoided distracting pejorative terms like “lackey”, “top tool” and “hive of spies”. He’s supposed to be giving a threat assessment not writing a gaudy spy thriller.

He also should be less dismissive and patronising to those who don’t share his estimate of the threats of espionage and foreign interference. He too much looks down his nose at “individuals in business, academia and the bureaucracy” who he says tell him “ASIO should ease up” on its operations for various reasons he sees as “flimsy”. These people Burgess piously says “should reflect on their commitment to Australia’s democracy, sovereignty and values.” Sensitive souls could well think it a bit rich to be lectured to by the ASIO about the country’s democracy, it being an organisation whose secrecy and limited accountability is a discount on democratic ideals. And while governments might want to promote certain values, public servants like Mr Burgess should refrain from doing so. Citizens don’t need sermons from spooks on values for God’s sake. Indeed, they should be free to have such values as they wish with governments confining their expectations of citizens to living with the law.

Burgess says “the Indo-Pacific” is home to some of the planet’s fastest growing populations”. This is notably misleading, another cardinal sin in the intelligence world. If he had consulted information published by his colleagues in the CIA, Burgess would have found that, with the exception of several countries on the African east coast of little strategic significance to Australia (for example, Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Zambia) and Afghanistan, Papua-New Guinea and East Timor, almost all countries in the Indo-Pacific, including Indonesia, have population growth rates lower than Australia’s. Big, important ones like China and Japan are going backwards. This is not a trivial point as population growth rates are of great strategic importance and the policy concern from Australia’s point of view should be that population growth rates in the Indo-Pacific are low, not high.

Burgess’s 2023 speech ended on a discordant note. He said that “some of the most rewarding feedback I received last year came from several adversaries.” They apparently complained “about how difficult it’s becoming to operate in Australia. One spy whinged to a colleague ‘I picked the wrong posting, the security service makes this one impossible.’” That observation sits uncomfortably with Burgess’s assertion that “more Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than at any times in Australia’s history”. If our intelligence services are making things impossible for foreign spies, why would they much bother?

A former Secretary of the Department of Defence, Sir William Cole, once observed that “It’s easy in the public service to be pre-occupied with contemporary challenges and to imagine these are new and different. But that says more about the way memory discounts the past than anything else – the latest problem is always the worst.”

Burgess should reflect on Sir William’s humble sagacity and, if he must persist in public speaking in ways that didn’t occur to any of his predecessors, he should adjust his content and tone accordingly. If he can’t, those receiving invitations to his next “threat assessment” speech might like to prioritise their attendance against the need to take the dog to veterinarian, visit a hairdresser or go to the pub and risk being asked about Pine Gap..

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